CHARLOTTE – It doesn't really matter how the Panthers got it done. Just that they did.
"We've been saying if we take care of our business, everything else will fall into place," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.
Carolina let the Cleveland Browns hang around, much like they let the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hang around last week. But once again, the Panthers clawed their way to a hard-fought victory, this time edging the Browns 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium to extend their winning streak to three.
This wild regular season will now come to an end at Atlanta next Sunday, where the winner takes the NFC South title.
"Well, now it comes down to one game," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That is all we can ask for."
The Browns didn't let the Panthers waltz into the winner-take-all finale. They took advantage of Carolina's inability to put the game out of reach and pushed them to the limit.
The Panthers were clinging to a 10-6 lead in the fourth quarter when the stress level began to rise exponentially. Quarterback Cam Newton, who scored the lone first-half touchdown on a 2-yard bootleg, was sacked and he fumbled. Fortunately for Carolina, left tackle Byron Bell recovered the loose ball.
Wide receiver Philly Brown fumbled on the very next play, but the officials determined that he was down by contact, taking away a Browns' turnover.
The sigh of relief was quickly replaced with stunned silence.
Three plays into the ensuing Cleveland possession, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer – playing in place of Johnny Manziel, who suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter – made the Panthers pay for bringing the blitz.
Hoyer released a throw right before the Panthers got to him, and his pass found tight end Jordan Cameron wide open over the middle for an 81-yard touchdown, giving the Browns their first lead – 13-10 with 9:59 left in the game.
"They caught us in the blitz," Rivera said. "We were late rotating. And we were just half a step away from sacking the quarterback."
The Panthers offense, which went through a "lull" as quarterback Cam Newton called it in the third quarter, responded.
Newton started the drive by completing a 21-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen, and he kept it alive by picking up 13 yards on a bootleg on a third-and-1. A 14-yard pass to wide receiver Brenton Bersin, which was ruled a catch after Rivera challenged the original ruling of incomplete, putting Carolina at the Browns' 9-yard line.
On second-and-goal, Newton improvised to evade pressure and found running back Jonathan Stewart wide open in the middle of the end zone for the 9-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers a 17-13 lead with 7:07 remaining.
"I was done blocking, so I just found my little bubble of space," Stewart explained. "I kind of felt like I was uncovered. I just wanted to stay put without moving too much so Cam could see me."
On the first play of Cleveland's next possession, cornerback Josh Norman leaped to make an incredible interception on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Travis Benjamin. Norman got up and weaved his way downfield. All the while, Benjamin was running him down with eyes on the ball which Norman left exposed.
Benjamin eventually chased Norman down and stripped the ball and made the recovery at the Browns' 29-yard line.
"I saw the wide receiver coming and chasing him," Rivera said. "He is going to have to make sure he keeps that ball tucked and can't let it swing the way he did."
The Browns went no-huddle and drove to midfield, but the Panthers held their ground. Defensive tackle Kawann Short sacked Hoyer for a 7-yard loss to set up third-and-21. After a minimal gain on third down, Cleveland punted to the Panthers with 3:24 left in the game.
"We were aggressive with our rushes," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "It was just good pressure."
Carolina took an aggressive approach on offense, too. On second-and-nine, Newton completed a 34-yard pass to tight end Ed Dickson, who entered the game with 66 receiving yards on the year.
Following the two-minute warning, Stewart ran the ball twice for five yards, forcing the Browns to call their final two timeouts. On third-and-five with 1:47 to go, Stewart ran left and cutback against the flow of the defense for a game-sealing 30-yard gain.
"It was an outside play. I saw the linebackers flowing across the top. I just cut underneath the blocks and there was space," said Stewart, who finished with 122 rushing yards on 24 carries. "It always feels good to end a game like that."
Said center Ryan Kalil: "It's a mindset going down there and knowing that we have to run the clock down. We had to finish the opponent.
"If we really want it, we have to finish," Kalil added, "So we did."